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“It’s ok to be a little racist.” George Baker says as he helps himself to a second abundant serving of eggplant parmesan. This sentence is the end of a long monologue about how things used to be “back in his day.” All I can think is that this man probably did have “his day” but now we are long past it. And times have changed. George’s eyes buckle beneath jutting brows, his hair is thin and mostly grey. His skin sags as he lifts his fork to his mouth.
I don’t look at him, instead focus on picking at the greasy tomato-cheese-eggplant mess on my plate. It is lukewarm, an attempt to reheat the mass failed. As I sit in silence, small oily bites find a corner of my stomach to hide in. I let my right foot bump Mike’s under the table, both to reassure myself that he’s there, and to express my discomfort. This dinner - both the food and the conversation - will later give me indigestion.
I want to yell at him. No! It is really not ok to be at all racist. No. No! NO! But what can I do? I’m white, eighteen, a girl, and a guest in George’s home where he sits in the throne at the head of the table. An argument can’t even begin to form on my greasy tongue.
I glance discreetly at Mike, begging him to defy his father. Instead, he chuckles and I feel a wave of disgust pass over me. He then reaches across the table and gets more food, mouth still processing his first helping.
It is Chase instead who speaks up. Chase, Mike’s goofy younger brother who is a few months younger than me. Chase, who has fondly teased me for the past eleven years, and even more ruthlessly once I started dating his brother. Chase, himself known for his thoughtless comments, not intending to hurt but managing to. Chase, the only one who steps up to his father, knowing he has gone too far.
“Dad, now is really not the time.” Every word is pushed through gritted teeth as he forces a grin that can only be described as impish. His head and eyes gesture towards his girlfriend, Lily. She is sitting to my left and to Chase’s right. She is so silent that I’d almost forgotten that she was there. Lily’s dark skin becomes the sole focus at the table, even though no one directly looks at her. Her head is tilted towards her plate and her hair cocoons her face. I don’t know what she thinks of our conversation. She hasn’t said a word since we sat down. I will never have the courage to ask.
The talk and the dinner both come to a muted end, and there is a great scraping of forks and chairs as everyone stands up. George collects our disposable plastic plates and chucks them in the fireplace in the next room, where several logs are already blazing. The warmth of the fire doesn’t reach the kitchen, but I can see the flames jump as they devour the plates, as instead of cleanly burning, the plates warp into hideous black lumps. I imagine that I can feel the toxic chemicals sailing out of the mantle, the invisible particles striking my body in an unstoppable attack. They hurt me internally and permanently just like his words do. This toxicity could have been prevented. George could be a decent person. He could use washable plates.
He sits back down after pouring himself yet another glass of red wine. He leans back contentedly in his chair, hands clasped over his large gut. He looks directly at me, his small eyes tearing into my body just like the waves of burnt plastic.
“Now, I just wanted to let you know that there is plenty of ice cream in the fridge.”
I turn to look at him, and I force a pleasant smile, “I’m really so full right now, dinner was fantastic, but thank you so much.”
“Not now of course. If you ate so soon after such a big dinner, I might have to call you a piggy,” he makes snorting noises, and I think of the weight I have put in the months since coming to college, and the new fold on my belly that appears when I bend over. I think of my slightly larger chin, my wider face. My ears burn as he snorts at me. I let this man make me feel ashamed.